“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” ~ American Indian proverb.

"With all things and in all things, we are relatives." ~ Lakota (Sioux) saying.

“If you know that things are bound to happen whatever you do, then you may feel free to give up the fight against them.” ~ Karl Popper

10 May 2015

Labour needs to ditch some sacred cows

"Every consensus is based on acts of exclusion."
~ Chantal Mouffe.

Labour’s main problem came into focus for me yesterday when I was watching the BBC News Channel. Rupa Huq, the new Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton (congratulations to her for winning) came on and started boasting about Labour’s success in London, linking it to London as a place where UKIP doesn’t do well and drawing a contrast between the diverse, relatively well-educated capital and the rest of the country.

This sort of ‘London exceptionalism’ makes some people feel very good about themselves but it doesn’t seem calculated to appeal to many outside the capital nor indeed many former Labour voters. It’s common currency among London Labourites though, and it’s telling that the contrast is most enthusiastically illustrated by contrasting Labour to UKIP. On this dimension the ‘us’ stands in contrast to a ‘them’ composed of UKIP and UKIP voters.

The contrast draws its fuel from a consensus view that UKIP is ‘a racist party’ but also from London’s great diversity compared to the rest of the country – with just 45% of its population being ‘White British’ according to 2011 census results. We think that London not voting UKIP and London being very diverse are two sides of the same coin. The ‘us’ of Labour is equated with diverse London while the ‘them’ of UKIP is equated with the not-so-diverse rest of the country.

You might see what is happening here: that for a strong tendency within Labour (in London in particular) ethnic minority voters count as ‘us’ while white people are regarded with suspicion as a latent, potential UKIP-supporting ‘them’. We draw ourselves around our core, and this creates our opposition. Labour’s tendency to associate itself with ethnic minorities and others as separate groupings which it specifically claims to represent (for example through ethnic minority, women’s and ‘LGBT’ Manifestos – while the Conservatives produced an ‘English Manifesto’) sends messages not just to those groups but to those who don’t qualify. Those messages say "we represent these people" but not you.

Watching election night unfold I thought I could see this phenomenon working itself out in London itself, where Labour won seven out of  12 target seats. The Tottenham MP and potential London Mayoral (even perhaps Labour leadership) candidate David Lammy picked it out during the BBC coverage: that the seats Labour were picking up were in areas of high ethnic minority concentration. In areas with less minority ethnic presence like Battersea and Hendon, the Conservatives did much better. Of course it will require serious number crunchers to tell a fuller story controlling for class and affluence and different ethnicities, but there seemed to be a pretty obvious trend there for me.

All politics is the politics of division in some sense but we might look north of the border to see that you can practice this more successfully than Labour does at the moment. The Scottish National Party identifies itself with Scotland – so every voter in the country counts as a potential core voter. The English (or people resident in England) are the outsiders for them, but they don’t have votes in Scotland. A lot of people don’t like this nationalism, but I think the SNP itself manages it quite well for the most part. All parties have their unpleasant wings and extreme outriders, though thinking about it I wonder if the Conservatives’ success might be partly down to them having relatively few of these (despite all the talk from lefties about how nasty and evil they are).

On the left, we do an excellent job of pushing people away, despite all our talk of ‘inclusion’ and Labour’s claims to be the party of ‘the many not the few’.  My feeling is that this is affects all left-leaning parties. That seems to be backed up by the numbers, which show how what you might call a ‘progressive alliance’ composed of Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, SDLP, Greens and Plaid Cymru won 47.7% of the total vote in this election while the Conservatives, UKIP and DUP from the right picked up 50.1%. (Thanks to John Clarke for pointing that out).

Compare that to 2010 (a bad year for Labour remember), when the more ‘progressive’ or left-leaning parties won a total of 55.7% against the right’s 41.7% and you can see that over the past five years the British left has been losing votes to the right, despite having a Conservative-led government implementing public spending cuts (known in left-wing circles as ‘austerity’). As a whole, the voters have looked at us and said, “You know what, the other lot aren’t great but I prefer them over you lot. See you later.”

This is where we need to start, by admitting that with the bulk of the British pubic, we are unpopular – the only serious exception being the SNP in Scotland which has got its identity politics worked out. There are lessons to be learned here. The now-departed Labour MP and former Ed Miliband adviser John Denham says:

“In seats we lost, like Southampton Itchen, our inability to win over those anti-Tory former Labour and would-be Labour voters who went for UKIP proved fatal. Despite the best efforts of our local candidate and campaign, Labour’s cloth ear to the politics of identity meant we could not bring them over. It wasn’t really about policies on immigration or Europe, but about a lack of confidence that we understood why rapid changes in work and communities seemed overwhelming. The rise of UKIP support amongst the voters we most needed to attract not only hit us hard but reminds us that there is no iron law that says we will do better next time.”

We can perhaps see from this how crowing about how ‘our’ areas and ‘our’ people resisting the appeal of UKIP is actually rather stupid, naive and self-defeating. It is also rather lacking in accuracy. As David Goodhart has written of the 2014 European elections, “UKIP, which won 17 per cent of the vote in London, outpolled Labour by almost two to one among white voters in the capital.” In Labour we blame UKIP for polarising and dividing communities, but by placing ourselves directly in opposition to them and by practising ethnic and other types of favouritism we end up doing that ourselves.

In one of the more enlightening accounts of Labour’s failure this time, the Fabian Society’s Andrew Harrop partly addresses these problems, with a clear awareness of how Labour has been losing the old white working class vote. He writes:

“The real problem was that, for many, questions of identity and culture took precedence and on these issues people felt deeply alienated from Labour. These themes are sources of division not unity among Labour’s potential voters, so it will be a huge task for the party to forge a sense of common purpose amongst non-Conservative Britain. And the job will become even harder in a parliament that is set to be dominated by immigration, Britain’s place in Europe and Scotland’s place in Britain.”

We can see here a tacit recognition how current politics is dividing potential Labour voters along identity lines which are mapping on to Labour/non-Labour distinctions. Many Labour and other left-wing folks blame UKIP for whipping up division, but with UKIP winning just one-in-eight votes nationwide and only one House of Commons seat out of 650, the blame must surely lie with us.

Harrop’s account is a good one, but his recommendations themselves partly reflect Labour’s troubles. He says: “[Labour’s] leaders need to resemble the diversity of its supporters and the party needs to rebuild the two-way emotional connections that have been severed. Locally, that means recruiting supporters and activists from within each community and organising to achieve change that people care about.”

Part of the problem with this is that some ‘communities’ are strong and have well-established representation within the institutional architecture of Labour and the wider left, while others – notably that troubled old (mostly white) working class – are shut out and have declined as communities. They don’t have much if any representation, and if they tried we would probably shout them down as ignorant and racist, particularly if they dared to step on the sacred cow of mass immigration.

So if we work to recruit supporters and activists from our existing voting base, we will probably continue to entrench ourselves in our existing redoubts, becoming more the party of liberal professionals, public sector workers and ethnic minorities and less like the people who have left us but who would appreciate some left-wing representation.

Harrop suggests: “To bring together supporters from such a diverse range of backgrounds the next leader will need to live and breathe ‘one nation‘, big-tent politics.”

This comes to the crux of Labour’s problem here. For, while being completely committed to divisive identity politics (which is institutionalised into its being), attempts by Labour to play ‘One Nation’ politics (which Ed Miliband tried for a while) do not convince.

So what do I recommend?

Well, pretty much the same as I have being saying here, seemingly pretty much alone on the left, for the last few years. We need to get rid of some sacred cows – open up the party, stop offering favouritism to certain groups and start to embrace equality rather than its opposite. How we draw the lines of ‘us’ and ‘them’ constitutes who we are: building a new, wider coalition sounds nice and easy in theory, but in practice it will require huge changes to the way Labour operates and to the way it thinks.

I seriously doubt if the party is even ready to start questioning these things, let alone embarking on such changes, but this is the challenge in my view. Thankfully there are signs that many Labour folks are at least reaching the threshold of the question; we shall see what happens. But I fear we will end up with the same old stale fight between the Labour left and the New Labour tendency: another example of an 'us' and 'them' division which doesn't do anyone much good.

For a few more suggestions on how Labour might change, see my short submission to the Collins Review on Labour Party reform.

For more on similar themes, see The Labour Party and other party politics page and Identity politics and the left page.

28 April 2015

In solidarity with the feminists (for once)

As I have explained here on several occasions, I am no fan of modern feminism. I don’t like the bad ideology, authoritarianism, unpleasantness, elite-centeredness and sometimes downright idiocy that many feminists engage in.

But on the latest hoo-ha whipped up by feminists defacing and removing ‘body-shaming’ adverts from the weight loss firm Protein World, I have more than a little sympathy.

It’s all about choice. We have no choice about viewing adverts in our public spaces – for example on billboards, at bus shelters and train stations. That wouldn’t be a problem if only so many adverts weren’t so blatantly propagandistic.

The one that has got feminists hot and bothered features an extremely slim young woman in a bikini with the slogan “Are You Beach Body Ready”, sited next to the company’s ‘Weight Loss Collection’ range of products [I have decided not to copy the image in here; Google it or click on the link above if you want to have a look]. A petition against the adverts attacks it for “targeting individuals, aiming to make them feel physically inferior to the unrealistic body image of the bronzed model, in order to sell their product.”

This is fair enough.

These and so many other adverts amount to private sector propaganda, forced on us just for going outside. One that has got me annoyed recently features two good-looking young women seemingly having a great time, with the slogan “Regret Nothing” attached (thankfully I don’t know what it is advertising). This is the propaganda of our age, and it’s utterly cynical in seeking to mould our behaviour.

As the street artist Banksy has written, advocating guerrilla action against adverts, “They have rearranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.”

Adverts have colonised our public spaces and it is about time we made an effort to re-capture them. In my more militant moods I’m tempted towards going the whole hog and banning them altogether: a mass re-capture of our public spaces from the tyranny of adverts.

That may be a bit harsh though.

The alternative is regulation. This could easily get out of hand but I think is the best option. Keep it simple: say to companies you are free to advertise your products but no lying and propaganda please. If you breach the guidances and the regulator upholds someone's complaint – hefty fines.

I’m no prude but I also see no good reason why we should be forced to look at half-naked young women as we go about our mundane daily business (if you want to do that you can do it freely in your own time). So let’s just ban them too (with maybe an exception if you’re selling underwear).

Advertisers and other companies will bleat, but they’ll get over it and soon adapt to the new times. The rest of us get a more pleasant and more civilised public sphere, and with Labour leader Mr Ed in interventionist mode, I hope this is one he’ll pick up and run with: not just to please the feminist tribe, but for all of us.

For more on feminism and other identity politics, see Identity Politics and the Left page.

23 April 2015

England needs a new national anthem

St George’s Day is meant to be England’s national day, but if you were not looking out for it you would likely miss it.

That shouldn’t reflect badly on you or on anyone else. England’s national day has been long neglected in England for various reasons, not least the priority put on other identities in national – British – life.

Liberal universalists – who largely dominate our public sphere - insist that borders are redundant and should ultimately be abolished. They seek to include everyone, but they just divide in other ways. Their forms of division are international, but they are still divisions – not by territory but by identity and ideology; in their way of thinking you may not belong where you live on account of having the wrong thoughts.

This point of view needs to be resisted strongly by all of us who believe in the connection between people and the earth they stand on.

As a part of this politics, England needs to find itself again.  

The first step for England starting to find itself again is surely through a new national anthem. At the moment England shares the plodding God Save the Queen as an anthem with the United Kingdom, thereby identifying 'the UK' with England, to the exclusion of the Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish. This is clearly wrong and silly; even more so given Scotland’s new-found national and separatist consciousness.

So England should have a new anthem. But how should we choose it?

The whole point of choosing an anthem is to form and define a community called England which everyone in England (the English) can gather around – a joining together of new and old Englands plus those who haven’t thought themselves English before. This is a big task which requires thought and planning. Most importantly, it requires mass participation and democracy. The people need to choose their new national anthem. This is something that needs to be done on primetime television.

How should we put together a shortlist of potential options though and compress the possible tunes into possible anthems? This means involving musical experts and orchestras, and also letting the general public submit suggestions which could be taken on and adapted if popular.

But – time to get on to possible options. I’m not going to bother with God Save the Queen because the whole point of this article is that we should get rid of it. Clearly though, it should be an option in the voting.

Here we have five possible options to provide the material for England’s new national anthem (all from what I know – not meant to be exhaustive):

Option 1

'I Vow to Thee, My Country' (instrumental version) from Gustav Holst's 'The Planets'.
(Holst was apparently a great teacher of music as well as a great composer; his name suggests an immigrant background; this was a few generations down the line).

Ralph Vaughan Williams with his cat, Foxy

Option 2

Ralph Vaughan Williams with the much-loved 'The Lark Ascending', played here by the Dutch violinist Janine Jansen and the BBC Concert Orchestra at The Proms.
(There is pathos there though since larks are almost gone; also I am no expert but it would seem to be difficult to make an all-purpose tune out of it).

Option 3

'Nimrod' from Elgar's 'Enigma Variations', beautifully played with restraint here by our military bands on Remembrance Sunday in 2009:
The Grimethorpe Colliery Band has an excellent version too.

Option 4

Jerusalem by Hubert Parry; words by William Blake – the classic favourite, here played and sung at the Last Night of the Proms in 2006.
(not a favourite of mine)

Option 5

Ralph Vaughan Williams again with 'Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis' - an anthem would need to pick out moments from this, but they are there to be picked.

My personal instinct is that a new English anthem should have no words. England has changed so much in such a short space of time that I think it would be impossible to put together words that define who we are – no bad thing. The music can be left to speak for itself. 

From that music, not being too prescriptive, England may start to scope out a shared life as a nation. Then perhaps after a while we might think about choosing some words for our new English anthem - but not now.

See also blogpost on 'The English Problem'. 

20 April 2015

Mediterranean migrant deaths – testing the limits of responsibility

The recent deaths of hundreds of migrants on boats in the Mediterranean are first of all a tragedy for the people involved and their families – also of course the poor survivors plus the Italians and others who are retrieving the bodies.

But the phenomenon is much wider than this, and many are describing it as a disgrace in relation to British policy. Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper for example called Home Secretary Theresa May "immoral" for having participated in dropping EU search and rescue operations; plenty of others have piled in behind her.

Our demands that something must be done morphs very quickly into that we must do something – specifically that we must provide upgraded rescue services for all these migrants who are paying big money to traffickers to get to Europe. It is the classic humanitarian response and is perhaps the only practical way to prevent a lot more of these disasters from happening.

It has had me wondering however if in many people’s minds we’ve reverted to a sort of colonial mindset: that we’ve gone back to the times of Empire when Britain was responsible for what happened all over the world.

By taking on responsibility for migrants crossing the Med – and calling others ‘immoral’ for being reluctant to do so – we are spreading our net of jurisdiction beyond our own borders – and indeed beyond the EU’s borders – to those troubled places where these people are coming from. The choices and risks these people are making are taken on as our responsibility.

No doubt there is some truth and goodness in that, not least when Britain, France, the United States and others conducted a bombing campaign to help kick out Colonel Gadaffi in Libya, the now-broken state where many of the traffickers and their cargoes are setting out from. The world is an increasingly mobile, globalised place where problems in one country have consequences all over.

But we should be wary about spreading our fields of responsibility like this – and honest about what we are doing when we do so. By bombing Libya and taking responsibility for the welfare of migrants wealthy enough to pay for passage to Europe, we are taking jurisdiction beyond our borders. If it’s our responsibility for their safety crossing the Med, then surely it’s our responsibility for their safety in Libya, Eritrea and Nigeria where they are coming from? And if we’re responsible for the wealthier ones, surely we should pay some attention to the poorer folks who cannot afford the passage?

This comes to the crux of the liberal universalist world-view, which sees happenings in elsewhere in the world as of equal importance to what’s going on in our own countries and on our own streets. This rationalist viewpoint is absolutely correct from an objective point of view – what Thomas Nagel called ‘the view from nowhere’ – but fails to account for people and governments as they really are: as bounded, local and limited in scope. It is completely unrealistic to expect me or you or ‘the media’ or government to give equal prominence to what happens in Eritrea as what happens in our own families, streets, to our compatriots and fellow citizens. This is not a heartless thing to say; after all we wouldn’t expect an Eritrean to give a damn about what happens in Britain.

Liberal universalists don’t believe in these limits though; they don’t believe in borders and boundaries to our interest and intervention. They believe that their universal rationality should be applied everywhere. Transfer this view to government and you have governments which break free from their erstwhile borders and wield their power all over: a neo-colonialist approach.

And that begs a bigger question.

For when so many states in Africa and the Middle East are in various states of collapse with little or no prospect of recovery (unless you take the triumph of Islamic extremism as recovery), what should and what can the so-called ‘civilized’ world do?

If we are serious in our liberal universalism - in seeing these world situations as important to us as the more mundane situations we have to deal with within our own borders - we should be making plans to use military might to take over these failed states and impose ‘good’ government on them. A version of this has already happened in Sierra Leone, to which Britain has given significant governmental assistance for many years since Tony Blair’s intervention there in 2000.

You would perhaps say in response: “But doing that would be completely impractical and we could not afford it.”

True, but it would be consistent with trying to address the problem as a problem within that (unrealistic and utopian) world-view.

I don’t have the answers to this specific problem of migrants dying on boats in the Med, and I don’t envy those in Europe trying to figure out what to do about it. This globalised world of ours is so complex that it’s difficult to get our heads around.

But I think we would do well to start re-emphasising where responsibility lies. Migrants entrusting their lives to traffickers are taking a risk, and we in Britain are not primarily responsible for that risk.

So blaming our politicians and media for migrant deaths is unfair. If we want to take responsibility then we should be honest about what we are doing and be prepared to confront the phenomena as a whole.

Alas, I think the traffickers will win out since it looks politically impossible for European governments to risk more migrants dying like they have been doing recently. Likewise, no serious intervention will take place in the countries of origin, so the migrants will keep coming.

One of my particular concerns is that governments in Africa and elsewhere take responsibility for their own jurisdictions and for their own people - and I don’t think the tendency of Western liberals to ‘leap in’ to take control in other countries through state- and NGO-related activity is always altogether helpful. The worst kinds of rulers are often only too happy to outsource state functions to outsiders who will take their place – and even better if they provide the funding. I think we may be seeing a similar process going on with migration. Populations across Africa and the Middle East have been exploding, and it seems that governments are only too happy to export their people in order to lessen their load. Again, we can see a phenomenon of responsibility – and population pressures – being transferred from one jurisdiction to another.

For more on not-dissimilar topic, see Immigration and the left page.